Yoga treatment in India.

Health and medicine explained.
March 7 2006 6:48 AM

The Medical Tourist Returns

Yoga treatment in India.

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Click here to see a slide show. My first afternoon in Rishikesh, India, I have tea with an Australian girl who has made these Himalayan foothills her home for the past 11 months. When I ask what she does here, she looks at me in bafflement. "What do you mean, what do I do here?" she asks after a lengthy pause. Then, as if addressing a slow kindergartener: "I do yoga."

A sensible enough response. Unless you're among Rishikesh's population of sadhus—Hindu ascetics who subsist on prayer and begging—yoga is about the only thing you can do in this sacred temple town on the banks of the Ganges. There's really no other reason to come.

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After two weeks of bumping along the back roads of Uttar Pradesh in an SUV without shock absorbers, I'm here because I'm again enslaved to my mangled right shoulder. The pain has become so wrenching that I've taken to wearing a neck brace.Rishikesh is only a five-hour train ride from my base in Delhi, and obscenely cheap. The yoga retreats I saw advertised in New York—luxurious getaways to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Mallorca, Spain, and Fiji—cost between $1,000 and $3,000 a week. In Rishikesh, I could enjoy a stripped-down version of the same experience for about $8 a day—fleabag hotel and turmeric-accented pizza included.

The streets of Rishikesh teem with earnest foreigners like Belinda, independently financed South Asia-lovers from France, Italy, Israel, Japan, and all corners of the British Commonwealth—just about everywhere except America, in fact. They sit with erect spines inside the town's pizzerias and rhapsodically compare medicinal baths in heavily accented English, the common tongue. The town's real activity takes place inside the ashrams and yoga centers that offer around-the-clock yoga instruction. A good thing, too, for in Rishikesh, you can't pass the evenings boozing over a plate of barbecue: As at all Hindu holy sites, it's illegal to serve alcohol or meat. Oddly, rather than dim the effete backpacker's devotion to the place, these municipal bans—with their attendant whiff of spiritual rigor—have only added to the town's popularity. Since 1968, when the Beatles made a pilgrimage here to study transcendental meditation at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, foreigners have come to Rishikesh to relax, to center themselves, and perhaps even to dabble in a little riverside polytheism.

Me, I just came to work out the kinks in my shoulder before the long-ass flight home. I no longer expected yoga to heal my injury; I've shelled out for enough classes over the past year to know that it provides only temporary relief. Then again, had I ever really given yoga a proper chance? Because classes in New York cost $15 a session, I could seldom justify attending more than two or three a week. If, as I planned to do in Rishikesh, I practiced yoga every day—even, insanely, twice a day—perhaps I might actually stretch to the source of my injury.

My first morning in town, I head down to the basement of my hotel for what turns out to be a private class. The teacher, Prakash, is a devout Hindu who dedicates each pose to a different deity and exhibits an uneven command of English. While he expertly throws around terms like "ulcerative colitis" and "anal lock," he often confounds basic verbs like "listen" and "hear," as in, "You ever listen of Lord Hanuman?"

Still, I like his brand of yoga. Kriya—Hindi for "action," he tells me—is principally a sit-down affair, ideal for early morning, with none of the frantic leaping and twirling that characterizes yoga in the West. You begin by scrunching up your toes, then rotating your ankles, and very incrementally progress toward headstands and backbends. Punctuating the postures are forms of pranayama breathing, or "victorious breath," a rudiment of most yoga practices.

Every day after class, Prakash guarantees my attendance the next morning with grand claims about his discipline, equating Kriya yoga with perfect everlasting good health. "You do Kriya yoga every day," he tells me, "you have no problem."

"And if I already have a problem?" I once venture to inquire. "Like a neck or shoulder injury? Will yoga fix it?"

Though I remain his only student, Prakash has displayed no great interest in my personal needs. Or maybe my sentences are too ornate, for instead of answering, he repeats his original claim: "Yoga every day, no problem. No sciatica, no tendonitis, no insomnia, no glandular problem, no sexual problem. You understand? No problem."

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